Every now and then I have a contentious deal where I should be wearing a black and white referee’s shirt instead of a shirt and tie. I’m usually successful in getting everyone to calm down and close the transaction. The case of KGM Custom Home Builders v. Prosky (embedded below) recently decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is an example of how really bad behavior at a real estate closing can get a party into big legal trouble.
45 Acres in Mansfield for Sale
The Prosky family of Mansfield entered into an agreement to sell 45 acres of developable land to KGM Custom Builders. The sale price was linked to the number of buildable lots that KGM could permit. After spending over $300,000 in 5 years including weathering an appeal, KGM was able to obtain permits for 60 residential units. However, the Proskys received a better offer for the land and a dispute over calculation over the purchase price arose. Nevertheless, KGM was not willing to back down, and scheduled a closing. Repudiating the contract, the Prosky’s attorney informed KGM that it should calculate the liquidated damages provision in the contract because the sellers were not going to sell.
A closing was nevertheless scheduled at which the Prosky’s attorney showed up with a professional videographer as “defense strategy.” The parties’ attorneys started yelling at each other, and KGM’s attorney shut off all electricity to the building, but the videographer was able to tape with battery power. KGM’s attorney demanded that the Prosky’s attorney produce the closing documents he was supposed to have drafted. The Prosky’s attorney waived the documents in the air, and when the buyer’s attorney went to grab them, he pulled them back and asked if could read them from 2 feet away. KGM, with funds on hand, was ready, willing and able to close, and took the Prosky’s attorney’s antics at the closing as not engaging in good faith, and walked out. At the end of the closing, one of the sellers asked the videographer, “can you explain to me what just happened”? (I would love to see this videotape!).
Anticipatory Repudiation, Breach of Good Faith and Fair Deal, or Both?
Naturally, KGM sued the sellers. The trial judge ruled the sellers had engaged in anticipatory repudiation but he calculated the sales price in favor of the sellers at over $1M, giving the buyer the option of going forward with the deal or taking the liquidated damages because the buyers had also breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing with their attorney’s antics at the closing. The buyer elected damages, and the judge awarded nearly $500,000 in permitting costs and attorneys’ fees. The sellers weren’t happy with this, so they appealed.
On appeal at the SJC, the legal issue was whether the law allowed the trial judge to provide the buyer with this favorable election of remedies. With few exceptions, outside of the commercial law context, Massachusetts has not generally recognized the doctrine of anticipatory repudiation, which permits a party to a contract to bring an action for damages prior to the time performance is due if the other party repudiates. One such exception occurs where a seller of land informs the “holder of an enforceable option” to purchase that he plans to sell the land to a third party. The high court ruled that this case fit within this exception and upheld the award of damages to the buyer. Naturally, the court seemed particularly upset about the behavior of the seller’s attorney at the closing. In fairness, the SJC did slash the attorneys’ fee award by $120,000, but with statutory interest accruing for several years now, the end result will likely be the same — the sellers are out a lot of cash.
Fortunately, these types of antics are very much the exception rather than the rule at Massachusetts closings. There is really no excuse for this type of unprofessional behavior at a closing, no matter how contentious the dispute. If a party is going to elect to terminate a deal, go ahead and do it without the theatrics. After all, what you say and do at a real estate closing may come back to bite you and your client.